A Philosophical Objection to "Karmic Deaths"
On the Harry Potter site FictionAlley, there was a topic entitled "Who Should Have Killed Bellatrix" discussing whether or not it was realistic or appropriate for Molly Weasley to have taken down Voldemort's chief lieutenant, the wicked Bellatrix Lestrange.
I said my preferred choice was that Lupin and Tonks take her out together, since she had vowed to "prune" the Black family tree after learning Tonks (her niece) had married Lupin (a werewolf). Having them prune her instead would have been entirely fitting, not only due to her stated homicidal intentions but because the two of them represent anti-racism and individualism (Tonks' mother was cast out of the family for marrying a Muggleborn; Lupin is unjustly despised for his condition but unlike most people, Tonks did not care), as opposed to Bellatrix's Pureblood-supremacism and tribalism.
However, when we last heard from Lupin before he was killed, he was dueling the Death Eater Antonin Dolohov, and Rowling later said Dolohov killed Lupin and Bellatrix killed Tonks. I said that if Harry, Ron, and Hermione had killed Dolohov soon after the Weasley wedding and the Death Eater takeover of the Ministry, when they had him at their mercy but chose instead to erase his memory of having seen them, Lupin could have survived ands my scenario of the two of them destroying Bellatrix could come to pass.
(In the movie, Ron wants to kill Dolohov, but Harry says if they kill him, the Death Eaters will know the Trio had been there. I don't recall what happened in the books.)
Somone on the board said they didn't think the depiction of a group of 17-year-olds killing someone was a good message. I said that having the heroes be too holy to finish a dangerous character (who will later go on to wreak more havoc) and then have the villain conveniently destroy themselves (as ultimately happened to Voldemort, something another board member said was deliberate on Rowling's part) so the heroes remain "pure" rather than continuing rampaging around actually teaches a bad moral message.
Here's what I posted, cleaned up a bit:
About "seventeen year olds not killing" being a bad moral message, it (and Karmic Deaths in general) teach that:
1. You Can Win a War With Clean Hands-No, you can't. There are lesser evils--nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the lesser evil than a land invasion or blockading Japan until most of the population starved to death--but victory often requires doing distasteful but necessary things.
In Oklahoma!, the villainous Jud Frye conveniently falls on his own knife so Curley and Laurie can ride happily into the sunset with "clean" hands and yet not have to worry about Jud taking revenge at some future date (as he very well might--earlier in the play he semi-confesses to having killed a woman and her family because she favored another man over him). In real life, this does not happen, or at least not very often.
2. Good Always Wins-Not in this life it doesn't. How many times have good people/nations been crushed by the bad ones? The Czechs lost their freedom in 1938, got it back briefly in the aftermath of WWII (before a Soviet-sponsored coup), and then lost it again until 1989. The Poles lost their freedom in 1939 (earlier if you count the fact they were under a domestic military regime that participated in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia), suffered the loss of (I think) one-third of their population to the Nazis, and spent 40+ years under Soviet domination. On a personal level, 25 percent of all murders go unsolved and truly massive numbers of rapes go unreported.
3. Someone Else Will Take Responsibility-One TVTropes entry is entitled Big Damn Villains and describes how the villains will often do something evil but necessary so the hero can remain "pure." This isn't realistic either. Sometimes, there is nobody else to take responsibility, nobody else to do the necessary thing.
Sufficient to say, in my fiction, there won't be "Karmic Deaths." I am not willing to sacrifice realism to paint a false picture of evil being something easy to defeat.
Now for the record, although I have never been to war and it's been a long time since I've been in a fight, I'm not some armchair warlord ignorant of how awful war, combat, etc are. Most of my writing involves violence in some form or another--in order to write it realistically, I've had to do a lot of research and thus I know that war, violence, etc. are evil things that should be avoided if at all possible. I depict war, but I depict it as something truly horrible rather than some unrealistic glorified situation.
Due to this ethic, in Fiction Alley's "Plot Bunny" (story idea) forum, I posted a suggested storyline where the three kids kill Dolohov because with the Ministry under Death Eater control, simply handing him over the proper authorities is no longer an option. Due to their lack of the skill needed to cast the Killing Curse, they essentially batter him to death with Stunners, with Harry contributed Sectumsempra. It is a horrific, brutal act that gives them all (especially Ron and Hermione, who unlike Harry haven't killed before) what knowledgeable readers would recognize as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, something those who have killed in war are often afflicted with.
(I think this would be entirely fitting for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, given how dark the book is.)
In my planned Wastelands novels, protagonist Andrew Sutter will participate in large-scale battles and many individual combats and I will not invent unrealistic scenarios to have the Forces of Good win the day without blood on their hands. However, I will most definitely show the psychological toll this takes on them.
For example, early in the story, Andrew hesitates to kill a fleeing officer of the Flesh-Eater Legion, an evil cult that is extorting tribute from his town, and said officer summons a Flesh-Eater army. During the resulting fight, Andrew again hesitates and another character dies at the hands of a Flesh-Eater scout Andrew could have killed.
(Most people are hardwired to have trouble killing other humans, something that takes significant training to overcome. Dave Grossman, who I think is a Vietnam veteran, wrote extensively about this in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.)
As a result of the above situations (and the consequent obliteration of his hometown and the death or enslavement of most of the people he grew up with), Andrew suffers from horrific survivor's guilt and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and, because he has associated hestitation at violence with failing to stop evil men from killing people he cares about, he is much less inclined to be merciful.
Externally, he will appear to be this apocalyptic bringer of destruction, but internally, we're talking a whole Santa-sack full of issues. I hope will be able to write Andrew in a way that does my planned tormented gunslinger justice but at the same time doesn't turn into melodrama.
I wanted to post the links to the discussions and "plot bunny" I mentioned, but either FictionAlley or my Internet connection is acting up right now and I am having problems getting there.